Biblical Ministries for Women (Part 3)

Portrait of John Calvin, French School - Wikimedia

By Rev. Prof. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, Th.D.. Ph.D.

8.       Calvin’s restoration of the office of Deaconess

Originally, a usually-married male officer had cared for the poor entrusted to his care.   Yet in the Middle Ages, there was a corruption of this office of Deacon into the unbiblical mediaeval ‘office’ of Archdeacon.  There, a celibate male priest was enjoined to perform sacerdotal functions.   As a result,  even the auxiliary office of Deaconess was phased out.

At the great Protestant Reformation, however, Calvin wisely revived the New Testament auxiliary office of Deaconess -- while also divesting even the three male special offices of Preacher-Elder-Deacon of their mediaeval perversions.    Thus Calvin commented that the “mercy” offices of  Rom. 12:7-13 are referring also to the “widows  and other ministers [alias servants] who were appointed to take care of  the sick, according to the custom of the Ancient Church.”   Elsewhere (Institutes IV:3:9), Calvin further declared that this same passage Rom. 12:7-15 includes also references  to “those  who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and the sick.    Such were the widows of whom he [Paul] makes mention in the Epistle to Timothy (I Tim. 5:10).    For there was  no public office which women could discharge, save that of elevating themselves to the service of the poor.”

In his Commentary on First Timothy (5:9), Calvin referred to “widows” who “must be sixty” before “being supported at public expense” as working Deaconesses.    Indeed, he added that “it was intolerable that they should declare themselves to the service of the Church, if there still remained any likelihood of their being remarried....   They, on their side, should be employed in ministering to the poor -- as far as their health allowed.”  

For these Deaconesses’ “communities were not intended for leisure or lazy inactivity, but to help the poor and sick until the women were worn out and could honourably rest in retirement.   Thus, to have them prepared to perform such an office, he [Paul] wants them to have had long experience of the duties belonging to it, such as: labour and diligence in bringing up children; hospitality; helping the poor; and other works of charity....  

“No woman should be accepted, whose age would ever lead her to desire marriage....    It was not at all necessary that women who were still young should be admitted into the order of widows.    Experience had shown that it was a dangerous and harmful practice.”

Indeed, in his Institutes (IV:13:19), while discussing I Tim. 5:9-15, Calvin stated that “Deaconesses were perform the public ministry of the Church towards the poor....  They...vowed celibacy...only so that they might be free from encumbrance in executing their office.”    See section 10 below.

9.       Appointment to special office only where gifted (and where those gifts were developed)

All Christians have some or other Spiritual gifts, and all Christians occupy some or other Spiritual office.   Spiritual offices may be either non-ecclesiastical or ecclesiastical.   Non-ecclesiastical Spiritual offices include those of  Magistrate, Police (wo)man, Husband, Wife, Schoolteacher, Schoolchild, Political Party Secretary, Bowls Club Chairperson, etc.   Ecclesiastical offices include those of  Believer, Deacon, Elder, Preacher, Deaconess, Theological Professor (Doctor or Teacher), etc.  

The mere possession of the relevant gift of the Spirit (such as that of governing) does not in itself imply that the thus-gifted one thereby automatically functions as an officer -- or even that he or she has a right to be installed in that office.   Just as not all single persons who desire to marry, ever get married; and just as not all married couples who desire to have children, ever actually become parents -- so too not all who desire church office, ever actually fill it.  

Thus in Ex. 4:24-50,  Zipporah's ability to circumcise, and even her actual administration of that Sacrament -- although exercised with the unbiblical approval of her negligent Preacher-Husband Moses -- did not and could not constitute her permanent appointment to the office of Minister of the Word and Sacrament.   Cf, F.N. Lee's Have You Been Neglecting Your Baby?

Similarly, the mere possession of the Spiritual gifts of  judgment and of  prophecy -- no more at all implies appointment to the Eldership or to the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, than the possession of all the qualifications to be an Apostle implies that Joseph Barsabas Justus had an inalienable right to be appointed to the Apostleship in Acts 1:16-26.    Thus, Deborah “the prophesying woman” or ’ishshaah nebiy’aah -- was indeed gifted remarkably.   She  also “administered Israel” or shooftaah ’eth-Yisjaa’eel in Judg. 4:4 cf. 5:lff.   

Also Philip had “four prophesying virgin daughters” or thugateres tessares parthenoi prophteuousai, in Acts 21:9.   But such giftednesses in themselves did not constitute their ordination to the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments.    Nor were they ever ordainable to such an office.

On the other hand, nobody should ever be appointed to church office until he or she first reveals his or her personal possession and development of the requisite gifts.    Husbands who wish they were Wives, or male Elders who wish they were female Deaconesses, or female Deaconesses who try to function as if they were male Preachers, not only frustrate the Church in general and themselves in particular.   They also inevitably end up neglecting or ignoring the very work they were actually called to execute.   I Cor. 7:7-24.

To be continued.


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